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U.S. Sees Need for New Approach in Pakistan-India Nuclear Talks

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, speaks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a March summit in Seoul. U.S. officials and independent analysts on Tuesday recommended a number of potential steps aimed at reinvigorating peace discussions between Pakistan and India (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais). Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, speaks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a March summit in Seoul. U.S. officials and independent analysts on Tuesday recommended a number of potential steps aimed at reinvigorating peace discussions between Pakistan and India (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).

WASHINGTON -- Years of talks between Pakistan and India on incremental military and nuclear confidence-building measures have failed to prevent a regional weapons race and occasional flare-ups in bilateral relations, leading a number of Washington officials and experts to wonder if it is time for a new, more ambitious approach (see GSN, April 9).

Participants at a Tuesday forum at the Henry L. Stimson Center offered a number of suggestions for symbolic moves that India and Pakistan could take to reinvigorate bilateral talks and signal their multi-year peace process is now a priority. Initial symbolic actions could include new country visits by heads of state and providing humanitarian aid to one another following regional natural disasters.

“Instead of trying to build slowly toward something, you try to make a fundamental change in the baseline,” said Toby Dalton, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, in a presentation at the forum. He defined the new approach as Indian and Pakistani government leaders prioritizing and taking on highly public and personal roles in bilateral peace negotiations.

Prospects for a lasting peace between the two longtime South Asian rivals seemed at their highest in February 1999, with the signing of the Lahore Declaration. That followed a summit by then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, according to Dalton.

In the Lahore agreement, New Delhi and Islamabad committed for the first time to giving each other advance notification of ballistic missile tests and to holding bilateral talks on options for improving mutual trust over conventional military and nuclear weapons issues. The accord was a relief for the region and the United States, which had been alarmed by the two nations’ atomic tests the year before.

“The Lahore process was the apex of the CBM effort to date. It seemed like it had the potential to really shift the paradigm in a real way,” said Dalton, using an acronym for confidence-building measures.

However, just three months after the Lahore summit, Pakistani troops crossed into the Indian-controlled section of Kashmir. The ensuing short war led to a breakdown in bilateral relations and a renewed focus by both parties on weapons development.

Conventional and nuclear CBM talks since that time have largely been the domain of midlevel officials, as Pakistani and Indian government leaders have largely chosen to focus on economic affairs, according to Dalton.

Because South Asian leaders have not taken a great personal interest in CBM steps, the matter has been left to “risk-adverse bureaucrats,” the Carnegie nuclear expert said. “Negotiations become an end in themselves rather than the beginning of something more meaningful.”

Dalton said that some positive gains have been achieved through the two countries’ multiyear peace process: increased bilateral trade, regular use of a military hotline, and adherence to a ballistic missile launch-notification mechanism.

The India-Pakistan peace process focuses on simultaneously addressing divisive issues such as terrorism, the status of Kashmir, disputed natural resources, and nuclear weapons. It was most recently halted following the November 2008 terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai by Pakistani-based extremists. The talks were not revived until 2011.

The composite dialogue in the past has included discussions focused on reducing the prospects of a strategic miscalculation that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. 

India is estimated to have produced as many as 100 nuclear weapons, and Pakistan is believed to have stockpiled a similar number or slightly more. However, Islamabad is understood to be increasing its stockpile of warhead-grade nuclear material at a faster rate than any other country; it could reach as many as 200 weapons over the next decade (see GSN, July 25). 

New Delhi and Islamabad have agreed to alert the other following any atomic mishap. The countries have also promised not to attack each other’s nuclear installations and once a year exchange secret lists of such sites (see GSN, Jan. 3, 2011). However, those limited assurances have not stopped the two sides from engaging in the world’s most active nuclear arms race. 

India this spring carried out a highly publicized maiden trial launch of its Agni 5 ballistic missile, which has a strike range approaching that of an ICBM (see GSN, April 19). 

The Indian military is also understood to be about a year away from wielding its first nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine. Once the INS Arihant begins sea patrols, India would have a full nuclear triad, giving the country an ability to launch atomic armaments by land, air or sea (see GSN, July 31). 

The Pakistani army has also developed a number of short-range, nuclear-capable missiles that analysts believe are aimed at countering New Delhi’s conventional military edge. These arms might be used if Indian military forces cross into Pakistan (see GSN, May 4).

One State Department official with regional expertise, speaking on condition of not being named, said there are “lots of dance moves to pick from” that could stabilize the India-Pakistan security relationship. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, did not specify what those actions could be.

The two sides differ over whether conventional and nuclear confidence-building measures should be discussed under the same umbrella. “There is recognition … on one side that those issues are intrinsically related and a belief by the other that they are separate and need to be kept separate,” the State official said.

India, which is the conventionally stronger military power, is seen to favor keeping the nuclear dialogue separate and insulated from other developments. Pakistan, on the other hand, views nuclear and conventional military issues as directly tied together. An argument in favor of separating the two is that should another crisis erupt, communication between the nations on atomic issues would not be cut off, thus lessening the chances of a costly miscalculation (see GSN, March 30, 2011).

There is also a concern about involved parties wearying of CBM talks. “These discussions have been going on a long time back and forth,” the State Department official said.

India reportedly was prepared at a CBM meeting last December to include cruise missiles launches in the nations’ years-old advance notification regime. Pakistan, however, wished to condition its assent to that step upon winning concessions on separate matters with New Delhi, according to Dalton. Ultimately no deal was announced that would expand prelaunch notifications to include cruise missiles.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin told forum attendees a “hybrid approach” that includes both incremental CBM measures and high-profile, politically symbolic steps makes more sense.

Chamberlin, currently president of the Middle East Institute, noted grand gestures such as the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to Israel. That trip led two years later to a peace treaty that still stands today between the two nations. 

Yet such steps are not sufficient by themselves in South Asia if there is not accompanying domestic buy-in, Chamberlin said. Any Pakistani leader who attempted to strike a far-reaching deal with India would have to have the support of Pakistan's powerful military, she said.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has proposed visiting Pakistan before the year is over. Such a trip would be a “good symbolic move,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Geoffrey Pyatt. Other important gestures could involve Islamabad permitting Indian products to travel through Pakistan on their way to Afghanistan. Islamabad thus far has been wary of India's growing involvement in Kabul affairs.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Michael Phelan cautioned that incremental, trust-enforcing actions were necessary to sustain interest and resources toward the peace process. “The symbolic element is not what will sustain it,” he said.

Noting it would take a desire by both nations for a lasting peace, or “two to tango,” Stimson Center South Asia program director Michael Krepon suggested one country should take on the principal role in peace efforts. He did not specify whether that should fall to India or Pakistan. 

“Tangos look pretty ugly when both parties are trying to lead,” Krepon said. “You need a leader but you also need a follower. You need someone strong enough to follow.”

Pyatt added that “economic drivers are absolutely essential” to strengthening and broadening the India-Pakistan peace dialogue.

“Probably the most strategic shift since 1998 is the shift that has taken place in attitudes toward commercial engagement,” he said. Both nations now recognize there are substantial economic gains to be had by greater cross-border trade, as well as “opportunity costs for both countries for failure to move ahead on that,” Pyatt said.

Dalton said he does not see much room for the United States to play the role of peace arbitrator in South Asia, as it has attempted to do in the Middle East peace process. This is largely because Washington is “not a trusted actor in Pakistan” and is viewed as too favorably tilted toward India, he said.

“Our declared evenhanded policy is not really seen as evenhanded. The United States, particularly over the last 10 years, has shifted toward India,” Chamberlin agreed. This worries Pakistan, making it more insecure and less likely to take the big-risk steps needed for lasting peace, she said.

Instead of Washington, the International Atomic Energy Agency through its auspices as a facilitator of regional atomic safety training sessions, could play a key role in normalizing India-Pakistan security relations, Dalton suggested. This could be done by bringing scientists from both sides together with the common purpose of averting an atomic disaster in South Asia.

“Both India and Pakistan seem to trust the IAEA more than they seem to trust any other country,” he asserted.

Dalton pointed to the experiences of Russian and U.S. scientists cooperatively working together following the collapse of the Soviet Union to lock down vulnerable nuclear weapons and materials. That collaboration and ensuing familiarity between the two nations’ technical communities percolated upwards in smoothing the way for heightened engagement between Moscow and Washington.

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